I started bouncing this idea around in my head a while ago, and when I saw 'Moneyball', it became a lot clearer. Michael Lewis mentioned somewhere that he was worried someone would buy the rights to his book and make it not into a story about Billy Beane's genius, but rather about Billy Beane's failure. Forget that Oakland never made it to the World Series during their eight-year run at the top of the AL West - they've now had five losing seasons in a row.
There are really two explanations for Oakland's middling performance after being so good: 1) after so many years of being good, they never had the high draft picks that turn into star players; and 2) with at least half the league paying attention to player valuation, market inefficiencies are much more limited than they were in the 1990s, and no one team can consistently find 5 or 10 undervalued wins on the free talent market. Add to that deep-pocket teams like the Boston Red Sox targeting the same players Beane would have wanted, and Oakland has to make higher-risk bets (that often don't pay off) in order to win.
As far as the NHL goes, it took a few seasons, but the league has to a great extent adjusted to the salary cap. Some teams - New York and Toronto - can circumvent it, but for the most part, teams that overspend or make big free agent mistakes pay for it. So has any general manager truly "figured it out"? And by "figured it out", I mean has anyone consistently built one the top three or four teams in the league without benefiting either from his predecessor's drafting or from multiple high draft picks and without spending to the salary cap?
First, let's look at the teams that have been consistently very good for the last few years: Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Detroit, Boston, San Jose and Philadelphia. For the first three, I think the jury is still out: all three were awful teams for many years and benefited from top draft picks. Philly committed the cardinal sin of mortgaging the future to pay for goaltending (as well as offering a multi-year contract to Jody Shelley), so it would take some twisted logic to call Paul Holmgren one of the top GMs in the league.
So that leaves Vancouver, Detroit, Boston and San Jose...Let's hit them in order:
1. Vancouver was about as dominant a team last year as we're likely to see in the modern NHL. But Mike Gillis gets a lot of value from players - the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Roberto Luongo - who he inherited from previous regimes. The Sedins and Kesler, in particular, are playing at a large discount from their true value. Gillis then spends to the cap, and the bottom 19 players on his roster aren't signed to discount contracts relative to the rest of the league. Gillis is a good GM - you need to be one to build a cup contender - but at the salary floor, the Canucks wouldn't be the best team in the league.
2. The story in Detroit is roughly the same as in Vancouver - several superstars signed to contracts at a slight hometown discount, followed up by a roster that's paid roughly its true value. Yes, yes, I know the Wings were brilliant drafters, but the operative word is "were". They've got basically nothing to show for the draft since the lockout and they've been gradually slipping in dominance over the last three seasons. I think you have to be skeptical of any claims that turning late draft picks into superstars reflects an organization's drafting ability - two-thirds of the 33 highest-paid forwards in the league were drafted in the top 6; Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are the only ones drafted beyond the beginning of the third round.
3. Over the last three seasons, Boston has had the #1, #2 and #3 individual post-lockout save percentages from Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask. That's a massive benefit and it means Boston was something like seven wins above average each season on goaltending alone. Is Tim Thomas, in particular, that good? Hard to say, but given that Boston was shopping Thomas for nothing after the 2009-10 season, the Bruins didn't believe think he was. The rest of the lineup is...and you've heard this before...signed at roughly their true value.
4. The Sharks have arguably been the best team in the league over the last four seasons, but they've never been the top team in any given season. Some people may discount them because they haven't reached the Stanley Cup finals, but then you'd have to discount Washington too (maybe you do?) And though their off-season acquisitions improved their team while slightly reducing salary, I don't think San Jose has discovered the secret to winning more efficiently. It has been several years since they've been a dominant possession team, and they've never quite hit the levels that Chicago or Detroit did during their Stanley Cup runs.
Don't get me wrong - I think the GMs of these four teams have done a phenomenal job building their organizations. But nobody has yet happened on the fountain of undervalued hockey players. There's a huge opportunity here for teams with salaries in the top half of the league - the top possession team in the league has been to the Stanley Cup finals in each of the last four years - and anyone who can scrounge four or five wins can almost guarantee themselves a cup win.